Nell Northwood walks the cloistered pathways of the Red Keep. The morning is still and calm; the sun is halfway risen behind the eastern hills. Soft pink light limns all it touches, but there is little warmth to its rays and beams. She walks slow and steady, her slippered feet soundless, her silk skirts sweeping the cool flagstones. Clipped hedges of yew and evergreen peek over waist-height walls of pale crimson stone but gone are the pink petals and orange blossoms of summer. Bursts of yellow and purple and white take their place amongst the dark green leaves: dahlias, crocuses, cyclamen and snowdrops. The first flowers of autumn. Nell runs her fingers over their bobbing heads; their scent smokes and she breathes it in and gives a smile. Sweet and sharp all at once. She glances to her left: the master of whisperers is absent from his crook of cushions, but his perfume lingers still. She glides forward on soundless feet, the fur-trim of her cloak turned up to shield her throat from the chill of the morning.
It has been half a year since she arrived in King’s Landing. Half a year since she stepped from the blackwood body of Storm Dancer and watched Catelyn Stark meet the eyes of a lord with a pointed beard and a silver mockingbird pinning his cloak. Half a year since her lady bid her stay in this city of smoke and blood to keep the girls safe and be a hand to help and heed. Half a year since she met her lord again in that room of hard kisses and furious hands. Ned. She thinks of him now and the fate that the south had planned for him: riot and ruin and a kiss of steel if he ever spoke of the secret he’d found buried deep in Malleon’s book. Black and red and gold. She thinks of her silver song that night Robert Baratheon learned of his queen’s betrayals; she remembers the fist of flame in rain-swept street as Jaime Lannister struck her hard and then fled the city. The flowers trail in streaks of indigo and yellow and pearl beneath her fingers and she lets herself think just for a moment how different it all could have been had she not been sent to help sort the chaos of Ned Stark’s lonely little keep.
Chaos burns low like a smouldering fire even now, threatening to take light and flare and turn all to ash – keep as well as kingdom. The lioness may be caged below the Great Sept, but the pride remains scattered and prowling. Casterly Rock has been ominously silent since news of Cersei Lannister’s arrest took wing from the maester’s rookery; but a knight in golden armour and crimson cloak has been glimpsed leading sorties into the riverlands. Fields and farmsteads smoke and smoulder whilst banners bearing lion and hound alike ripple in the burning air. Just as fast as they are put up, they are taken down. Hacked free to make room for flags of trout and direwolf. Stark and Tully stand as one to defend the three forks of the Trident; Ned’s call to his bannermen was carried home by his lady wife and brought back south with his son, Robb. Lion and wolf drinking from the same grey stream with wary eyes and quick claws. Nell wonders, not for the first time, which beast will strike for life’s blood first. She rubs her cheek against the fur-trim of her cloak and shudders, looking out to the city spilled dark as blood on the hills before her.
The Hand’s household are breaking their fast in the small hall by the time Nell slips in through the heavy oaken doors. Sunlight floods full and thick through the tall windows of leaded glass; shadows dance across trestle tables of ash and dapple grey-and-white cloaks and silver hand-pins. There are half a hundred more guards at the benches now than there were half a year ago. Men of good sense brought out of the shadows now the head of the snake is pinned. Nell takes her seat and feels a happy glow to see them with her lord’s pins and pledges holding up their cloaks and hearts. Septa Mordane sits to her right, carving up a piece of blackened bacon and relaying a tale of some saint or relic to the girls opposite. Sansa Stark and Jeyne Poole glance at each other with laughter in their eyes; Arya shoots Nell a bored look from beneath her wild hair. They share a conspiratorial smile before Nell glances to the head of the table.
Ned dips his head to her: a lord’s greeting to his loyal ward, no more. But his eyes tell of a different story – one of the smoke and soft heat and scent and spice of the night before. She bites her lip and looks at her plate, feels her cheeks flood with the sweet shame and surrender forbidden love is ever damned to bring. Nine years, she thinks, and still his stare turns my heart to flame, clouds my head like smoke, burns honour and duty to ash… She glances up at him again and thinks of his mouth on her throat as they moved together in moonlit shadow; he smiles at her knowingly.
“So, girls,” finishes Septa Mordane, her voice a rhythmic familiar drone. “Following such precedent of grace and piety, noble maidens all over the realm lay garlands of parchment about the Maiden’s neck and sing her songs of innocence.” She lifts the bacon to her mouth and then mops at her lips with a silk kerchief. “In a moon’s turn, you will do the same.” The septa’s bright eyes light on Sansa. “Your lady mother instructed me to bring with us the very gown she wore the last day she sank candles at the Maiden’s feet and sang her the song of the seven. It will look well enough on you, child.”
A gown of white and a crown of wildflowers on hair red as flame. Nell gazes at Sansa across the ashwood table and feels love surge strong in her heart. The soft morning light sets the girl’s cheeks to cream, turns her auburn hair red and rich as her lady mother’s, and shines her Tully blue eyes to sapphires. Cat’s own self… Littlefinger had called her such at the tourney of the Hand half a year ago, staring at the girl with hunger in his belly and silver light in his eyes. Nell fights the smoke of his words from her head and lifts her cup to her lips. Wolf will no longer wed lion and I am glad of it for true – but other beasts lurk in the shadows and the mockingbird flits as prince amongst them all. Ned had gritted his teeth and near ground them to dust to learn that Littlefinger had stepped unscathed from the market square that night of rain and riot. Somehow, the lord of silver eyes slithered as resilient as a snake from the bloody mess of his own making and emerged back at court one day as cool and quick as ever. Still, he counts coins no more and hears nothing save for the little bells that jingle on his cap. Nell smiles to herself and swirls the thin ale in her cup.
“What will happen to the queen today?” comes a loud little voice, cutting through Nell’s thoughts of silver words and shadows. Arya stares at her from beneath her fringe of dark hair, picking a heel of bread to crumbs in her hands.
“The queen will spend the morning on her knees in her penitent’s cell, child,” says Septa Mordane, her voice a whiplash in the air before Nell can form a reply. “A white-cloak will bring her before the high court, her charges will be read, a verdict will be reached, and she will return to her knees to pray – in thanks or fear, we cannot yet know.”
“And afterwards?” asks Arya, her eyes narrowing.
The small hall has fallen silent now; Nell feels the eyes of a hundred men land on their little circle of quiet words and wide-eyed girls. Arya looks from her to the septa and back again, frowning. Nell hears Ned clear his throat and feels relief flood her cheeks that she will not have to answer Arya’s questions. She watches as he rests his gaze on his daughter’s dark head. Gone are lover’s eyes and playful smile. He looks a solemn stranger. He wears his lord’s face now as Bran is like to call it.
“Cersei Lannister is charged with high treason and crimes of conspiracy, adultery and incest,” says Ned, his voice as calm as if he were sitting the small council. “Her trial will be presided over by King Robert and a handful of lords and septons.” He gives a tense smile to see his daughter’s eyes grow wide. “I will sit at the king’s right hand and remind him of mercy should the other lords bay for blood.”
“Let them have it,” pipes Arya, her voice as prickly as her eyes. “I’ve heard tell it was a lion’s paw that pushed my brother from his window.” She sets down the ruined heel of bread and scowls. “They talk of nothing else in the bailey but mounting the queen’s head on a spike along Traitor’s Walk.”
The smile has gone from Ned’s face. The hall is silent, waiting, holding its breath; his eyes are black and cold as he stares at every man looking at him from the ashwood table. Nell feels a thrill of fear bloom in her blood to see him so. He is not Ned now – he is not lover or husband or father. She looks from Arya’s pale face to Ned’s cool eyes. He is Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell in this moment, he is the Warden of the North, he is the Hand of the King, he is fire and ice and snow and storm…
“Tell me, Arya Stark,” says Ned, his voice low and smoky. “These men who throw words and blades as easy as breath in the bailey – would they swing the sword that strikes their sentence?” He leans forward in his chair and his eyes are pale as ice above his wild black beard. “Would they look into the eyes of the lion before they took its pelt?”
Arya makes a sour face and shakes her head; Ned looks from her to the hundred eyes intent on him around the trestle table and taps the ashwood with his hand.
“The blood of the First Men still flows in the veins of the Starks, and we hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” His voice carries like thunder across the small hall. “If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words… if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.” He rises from his seat and straightens the golden collar of clasped hands about his neck. “Cersei Lannister will get a trial that befits her birth and standing – and I will sit at Robert’s right hand and remind him of mercy even as lords and bailey boys alike bay for blood.”
Ned leaves the small hall in a flurry of grey-and-white cloaks and silver hand-pins flashing brightly in the sunlight. A handful remain seated at the trestle table of ash and set to talking busily to dull the sting of his words. Sansa and Jeyne giggle and gush about their gowns for Maiden’s Day whilst the septa studiously spears her blackened bacon. Arya lifts her head from her plate; Nell meets her stare and gives her a soft little smile. So sweet, so innocent. She looks at the child’s sleek dark head and worried eyes. I would sink any heat that hurt her, for true. Love fills her heart even as fear clouds her head; she bites it back until Arya finally returns her smile and the queen’s trial of truth is forgotten – just for a moment.
Moonlight turns the Red Keep to silver and white when at last Ned slips back up the stone stair of the Tower of the Hand. His shoulders ache, his neck hurts, and his head is a pulse of fire from a day spent drawing charges and watching king and queen spit venom at each other like cornered serpents. His ears ring with the sound of half a dozen lords clamouring to talk at once; each desperate to state their truth and hail their sentence. Black and white and grey, thinks Ned, all the shades of truth. Wheels upon wheels; the trial had fast slipped to chaos and disorder. Black and white and grey… He finds the door he seeks and shuts it quietly behind him, his boots whispering across the flagstones.
The room is a red-warm glow; moonlight slips in through the leaded windows and limns the curtains of the bed in half a hundred shades of gold and yellow light. A fire burns low in the hearth, casting shadows and shapes to dance across the oaken chest at the foot of the bed. Her gown of silver-smoke silk lays across it, her dainty slippers tucked neatly alongside. He crosses the room soundlessly and parts the red curtains of the bed, his breath catching in his throat.
She is naked and rosy in the fireflame, her hair a cloud of ink blotting the pillows, her full lips parted in the soft breath of sleep. He looks down at her so soft in sleep and feels his heart swell beneath his ribs. Hearth and home and heart tree – she is all three to me. He runs the silver chain about her neck through his fingers, smooths the wolf’s head pendant with his thumb. What is honour compared with smoke and sound and silver light? His fingers stray to run her black hair back from her brow. What is duty in place of love? Even in sleep, she arches toward his touch; his face breaks into a soft smile despite the pain in his head and the grief in his heart.
Nell makes a gentle sound and raises her head to blink up at him sleepily. He looks down at her, the half-smile soft on his lips, and watches with amusement as she frowns and focusses and pouts at him, her eyes caught halfway between dreams and wakefulness. She is silent for a moment before she rolls toward him, helping him from cloak and doublet and boots and drawing him down beside her on the little red-curtained featherbed. He slips his arms around her, feels the pain in his head begin to lessen as her cheek rests heavy on his chest, as her skin presses warm and soft against him.
“The restless wolf returns,” she whispers, her voice husky from sleep. “Did his howls join those lords who bayed for blood?”
Ned shakes his head and gathers her closer to his chest, his lips marking her brow and breathing in her scent of wildflowers and winter.
“Cersei Lannister has demanded a trial by combat,” he says, his voice quiet and indifferent; Nell feels his heart thrum against her cheek. “She waits in her penitent’s cell for her knight of white and gold to rescue her as he has always done… little does she know that the Kingslayer is fled to the westerlands.” His hand stills on her dark hair before slipping to whisper across the cheek Jaime Lannister’s hand of gold and flame struck purple and black; she shivers against his touch. “Robert rages like a bull and makes motions to forgo the trial altogether – he wants nothing so much as a bloody end to this whole affair.” Black and white and grey. Ned closes his eyes and sighs.
Nell is still and quiet in his arms; Ned watches as her fingers tap a steady rhythm against the plump muscle of his chest and hears her hum soft and rich as the golden light spilling in through the shutters. “And her children?” she asks. “What of them if Robert charges through court and conscience like a crazed bull?”
“Their bodies will lie beside their mother’s in the crypts of Casterly Rock,” says Ned, low and sad. “Robert will show mercy only if Cersei gives in to her fate… but a lion is a proud creature, a lioness even prouder.” He meets Nell’s eyes as she lifts her head from his chest and stares up at him, her black hair a rumple of curls framing her face. “I fear this mess of blood and fire is about to get ever bloodier, my love.”
“Step by step, remember,” whispers Nell, lifting her face and meeting his searching lips. “Mockingbird is remade to motley.” She kisses him slow and soft, hears the moan low in his throat. “Spider spins his web of silk and stays true in the shadows.” His fingers trail down the column of her throat; she shudders into his kiss. “Stag and wolf move as one with salt water.” They search each other’s eyes. “And lioness can be swayed so long as we hold her cubs.” He rolls her onto her back and drinks deep her mouth, his hands running from her throat to her waist. She strokes back the dark hair from his brow. “Step by step, my love. Step by step.”